Late last month, I spoke to Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald (“Trainspotting,” TV’s “Boardwalk Empire”) and director and Oscar-nominated producer Marc Turtletaub (“Little Miss Sunshine”) about their new independent drama “Puzzle.” The film tells the story of an unfulfilled Connecticut wife (Macdonald) who seeks out happiness away from her mundane life. She finds it through the art of putting together jigsaw puzzles with Robert (Irrfan Khan), a puzzle aficionado from New York City.
What resonated with you about this story and what did you hope to reveal about Agnes on screen?
Kelly Macdonald: I was very interested in [Agnes] when I started reading [the script]. I found it quite emotional. It was pretty much all there in the writing. What I hadn’t realized was how much of a joy it would be to play Agnes on this journey on her own. Even if she’s in a room full of people, she’s alone. It’s heartbreaking.
Marc Turtletaub: I was drawn to the writing and to the subject matter. It’s about a woman over the age of 40, which we don’t see very often. As I watched this character, a woman who dotes on her husband and her two teenage sons in suburban Connecticut, it reminded me very much of my own experience growing up and my own mother, a woman who doted on my father. As I read the script, I thought, “I know that woman. I know this story.”
Do you consider what she is going through a sort of mid-life crisis or would you define it as something else?
KM: I think it’s a coming-of-age story rather than a mid-life crisis. Her mid-life crisis will come much later in life. (Laughs) I think she’s looking to grow up. She hasn’t been given the space to do that.
MT: I see it as her finding who she is more authentically and finding a passion for this most unlikely of things. I never thought jigsaw puzzles would interest me as a moviemaker, but once I read it, I realized it really wasn’t about jigsaw puzzles. It’s about a woman and the relationships she has with other people. Once I realized what that was about, that’s what became really interesting to me.
Did it have to be puzzles? I mean, wouldn’t it be the same film if she took up basket weaving instead?
MT: She could’ve been doing anything. If she followed her passion and it was needlepoint or field hockey, then through that, she would begin to find who she is. And then she’d begin to find her voice, just later in life.
KM: Absolutely. It could be anything. I think that’s the good thing about the film. Puzzles are the thing that opened her life up in a way that she didn’t know before. It’s not about winning a puzzle competition. It’s about people being given room to change. She’s been sort of stuck in time.
Kelly, how important is it to build chemistry with your leading man prior to shooting the film and what was your experience like working with Irrfan?
KM: I think it’s pretty important. You can never tell if something is going to work on the screen or not. He’s an amazing actor and he arrived with such energy and enthusiasm. He’s a very physical actor. His body language is great when he’s in character.
MT: I think their chemistry was there immediately. That’s what happens when you cast great actors. I chose not to rehearse with any of the actors because I wanted what came on the screen to feel fresh. What you see is the first time it’s actually being conveyed. It makes it feel real because in the movie they’re really meeting for the first time.
Marc, was it a conscious decision when casting to choose actors who would create a biracial relationship? If so, how do you think that dynamic enhances the story?
MT: I think it enhances it. It wasn’t conscious. I just wanted great actors and I got them. I think it adds in a sense that Agnes is entering this whole new world in New York City. The environment has to be different. The fact that Robert is Indian and speaks with an accent only makes the world that much more exotic and different from her upbringing. So, without consciously thinking that, I think intuitively I knew that. Having the opportunity to work with someone as special as Irrfan added tremendously to the project.
Kelly, I heard there was a team of people on set whose job it was to build all the puzzles. Did you feel bad when the script called for you to break one to pieces?
KM: (Laughs) I felt bad for the prop department, I have to say. They had some late nights preparing these puzzles. It was a lot of work for someone.
MT: As you’re prepping the movie, you’re thinking about the puzzles. In one scene, you might have to have five or six or seven versions of that same puzzle. The prop people are the unsung heroes of the movie.
Kelly, I saw that you’re reprising your role as Merida from “Brave” in the “Wreck-It Ralph” sequel later this year. Does this have anything to do with the fact that “Brave” beat “Wreck-It Ralph” for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2013?
KM: (Laughs) I don’t think John C. Reilly is trying to get me back or anything. (Laughs) I’m so happy they called me. I never thought that would happen. [In the sequel], she’s more Merida than she’s ever been.
Marc, your next film as a producer is “You Are My Friend,” the Mr. Rogers’ biopic starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. Besides being one of the greatest living actors today, what led you to him to play this iconic role?
MT: Tom is an iconic actor – maybe the iconic actor of our generation. To have the opportunity to work with him in a role, which is also iconic, is such a special thing. The pairing of the two felt almost inevitable. We’re really happy that Tom wanted to make the movie.